Experiencing “The Classics”…the book club edition (May 10, 2008)

May 10, 2008
During these past few months, my contemporary fiction book club has disbanded, and I have since started a classics reading group. We, in the contemporary group, were simply not enjoying our picks, being  consistently disappointed with the quality or the depressing tones of our choices. We didn’t join a book club to be depressed!

I have been longing for quite a while to catch up on all the literature I missed out on in high school. In my opinion, I received a substandard education in a rural Kansas institution (the emphasis being on Kansas history–really, how much is there to learn about Kansas!!!) and then read mostly politically correct and obscure European literature in college. I crave to read the works of the great dead white men and women!!!! Tolstoy, Austen, Bronte, Dostoevsky, Defoe, Elliott, Lawrence, Trollope, Dumas…

We are beginning with Willa Cather’s My Antonia (an-ton-ee-ya–it took a while to figure this out!). It’s a short novel, set in the 19th-century American Midwest: a farming tale of struggle, a love affair with the prairie, a tale of immigrant survival in a rough new world. I have finished it and, in my opinion, it was a worthwhile read, if for nothing else but the illuminating horror stories immigrants brought with them to the new world and the beautiful language Cather used to illustrate her infatuation with the land.

I was very confused when I began reading, assuming (rightfully so, as the book is titled My ANTONIA) this book was about a girl named “Antonia,” yet as it read, the plot revolved around the life of Jim Burden, a young orphan sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents, and who is, from first sight, smitten with Antonia and tracks her life from that of a young girl to mature woman. After recovering from my initial confusion, I viewed the book as Jim’s story with Antonia being placed as a secondary character, and the plot finally began to fall into place.

The pace of the narrative varied: sometimes moving at a snail’s pace, other times rushing by quickly. One could surmise that the pace of the story resembled the pace of life in Midwest survival mode: quickly gather the harvest, preserve and store for the winter, rush, rush, rush . . . when the first snow falls, one has no choice but to sit back and hope that all the preparations have been enough.

I grew up in the American Midwest, and truly cannot understand Cather’s love for the place. But I was able to see its beauty through HER eyes, and that in itself is reason to recommend this book.

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